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Is “Clean Eating” Hindering Your Weight Loss?

Avatar Nutrition Staff

September 8, 2020


Attempting to eat healthier is often the first tactic used by those trying to lose weight, but does clean eating actually work?

Things like soda, candy, cookies, pastries, bread, bacon, and other high-calorie foods tagged as “unhealthy” are often the first to go. People who “clean up” their diet using this strategy typically experience some weight loss success at first but eventually hit a wall– even when sticking to the narrow list of acceptable foods.

Why is this? The answer is painfully simple—it’s because of the failure to account for the calories and macros in “clean foods.” By eating cleaner, people inadvertently cut out many calorie-dense foods and initially lose weight as a result. This weight loss is then mistakenly attributed to some mysterious mechanism imparted by sticking to the foods on their list.

But in reality, when it comes to bringing about weight loss, there is nothing magical about these “clean” foods other than that many tend to be lower in calories. Sure, some of these foods may be higher in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and beneficial compounds such as antioxidants, but none of these things have value as energy, or matter for weight loss—when it comes to losing weight, it’s all about burning more calories than you eat.

You can get fat eating tilapia, broccoli, blueberries, and almonds if you eat enough of them. When trying to lose weight by eating healthy, you must still control for calorie intake, which is the determining factor in whether you lose or gain weight—not the specific foods you eat. After all, if you rely on eating clean to lose weight, what do you do when you hit a sticking point in your weight loss? Eat “cleaner?”

clean eating meme

In addition to failing to account for energy intake, many who use clean eating as a weight loss strategy don’t track their intake of protein, carbs, and fat. While total energy intake is the most important thing to consider, where those calories come from can also affect the quality of the weight loss. How so? It works like this:

When most people start clean eating programs, they focus on eating vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and often neglect to get enough protein. This new “clean eating” regimen often results in an inadvertent drop in calories—drastically below what their body is used to getting. This may lead to rapid weight loss…at first. While this rapid weight loss may seem like a good thing on the surface, the combination of suboptimal protein intake and a drastic calorie deficit can result in disastrous long-term consequences.

Often, this means losing a large amount of metabolically active muscle tissue, rather than fat. This kind of weight loss not only slows your metabolism, but it also primes your body for weight regain! And then you will really be kicking yourself when you realize that you also missed out on the thermic effect of protein, which boosts your metabolism and allows you to eat more calories while dieting.

Having less muscle and a slower metabolism is certainly devastating when it comes to losing fat and keeping it off, but just as problematic is the effect that clean eating can have on the psyche. Anytime you deprive yourself of something you enjoy, you’re only going to want it even more—and when you have a taste of it, you’re going to want all of it! This type of mindset is the perfect starting point for the binge and restrict cycle to take hold.

One little slip up from your strict list of “clean” foods can lead to a total abandonment of the totalitarian discipline the diet was based on, to begin with. Suddenly, you’ve gone from weeks of eating low calorie “clean” food to a potential multi-day bender of forbidden indulgences with ample stops at the pizza buffet and ice cream shop. Sure enough, after the weight piles back on, guilt will set in and lead to another few weeks of total restriction; that is until the next social event where you just can’t take the temptation anymore—the cycle continues. This time, however, with a slower metabolism and possibly even a higher starting weight.

So what’s the solution?

Enter: Flexible Dieting

It’s a scientific approach to dieting where you track your intake of protein, carbohydrates, and fat (macronutrients). Based on your goal and metabolism, you will have a target amount of macronutrients to eat each day. As long as you consistently hit these target “macros,” you will transform your body!

With flexible dieting, there are no “good” or “bad” foods and no one-size fits all meal plan. Instead, there is a non-restrictive world of foods made up of different amounts of “macros”.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to fill out your macro targets with “clean” foods, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that they have magical properties for weight loss or that eating a bit of “junk” food will throw a wrench in your progress. Account for your choices by tracking your macros, and embrace the freedom that flexible dieting brings!

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